Learning and Development

Reflections on Role Play

  • Reflections on Role Play

In Montessori’s view we should give children the opportunity to imagine spontaneously, free from adult input, explains Barbara Isaacs…

Over the years, role play has caused much misunderstanding within the Montessori community. Some of this stems from the ambiguity of Montessori’s own writing, and Montessori teacher trainers have at times perpetuated the conundrum by not discussing the nature of children’s play in the context of Montessori’s own writing, or in relation to research around child development. Yet, we witness role play every day in Montessori settings – while children explore the activities of everyday living, when they investigate the sensorial materials and play outside, and also while they engage with the many resources available in the area of ‘understanding the world’.

In their role play, children use their capacity to symbolise, represent and imagine. In The Advanced Montessori Method I, Montessori states that “creative imagination is that spontaneous work of the infant mind by which children attribute desirable characteristics to objects which do not possess them”. This acknowledges children’s capacity to use symbolic representation in their play, transforming, for example, the pouring activity found on the shelves in Montessori settings into a tea party for friends, or the structure made from the pink tower and broad stairs into the Eiffel Tower. These imaginings are based on children’s own experiences, reflecting situations and behaviours they have encountered in their daily lives, or on television or in stories read to them.

The illuminated palace

Montessori states that “creation is in fact the fruit of the mind which is rooted in the observation of reality”. Further, she says that “these products of higher imagination […] represent the environment in which the intelligence of our child is destined to form itself”, and declares, “Imagination can have only sensory basis […] sensory education is therefore the foundation of the observations of things and of the phenomena which present themselves to our senses; and with this it helps us to collect from the external world the material for the imagination.”

In these quotations we find strong affinity with Piaget’s description of play, which according to his understanding of children’s development moves from mastery play, evident in the sensory motor stage, to the symbolic play so strongly aligned with the role play of all nursery-age children.

Montessori advocates for creative thinking to grow out of sensory perceptions of the world and from opportunities to observe the environment. She writes that “creative imagination must rise like an illuminated palace”.

Therefore, as practitioners, we must ask ourselves, do we provide enough opportunities for the illuminated palace to rise, and why haven’t we been able to find these inspiring words in Montessori’s writing? It may be because, in the same chapter in her book Spontaneous Activity in Education, she also mentions that it is dangerous for the young child, whose mind is immature, to be encouraged by the adult to imagine things that are not present in reality. For Montessori, the young child is unable to distinguish true from false information and is prone to believe all the adult says. She advocates strongly that the child needs to “imagine spontaneously”. In other words, if children use their imagination based on their experiences and observations of the environment, then it is a desirable quality and should be recognised and supported as such. It would therefore follow that if adults initiate role play then this, according to Montessori, may be damaging to young minds.

If we reflect on the role play we witness daily, the majority of the scenarios are rooted in children’s own experiences. Role play enables them to enact these experiences in a context that gives them control of the play scenario. This type of play helps children to address emotional and social issues that other types of play may not facilitate. It provides tools for learning about resolution of conflict and opportunities to address anxieties that may lie buried in the subconscious.

As always the key to our understanding of children’s role play and its importance is to observe the child, getting to know her play to gain a deeper insight into her unique world.

Barbara Isaacs is the academic director of Montessori Centre International.